The Family Business

Published 11:41 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

There was a time in farming when the land dictated what crops would be sowed, the farmers could name their price and the agricultural community was a cherished and important constituency for political leaders.

David Bosselman can remember that time.

It was the time of his grandfather, and his grandfather’s father.

Bosselman is a fourth-generation farmer; his son, Brian, makes the fifth generation of Bosselman farmers.

It’s a life they have always known growing up on the farm, but it’s a life that has been revolutionized from one generation to the next.

“Today, it’s just a completely different story than it was for my granddaddy,” David said. “With farming, you’ve got to learn to change with the times.”

Change in the farming industry has occurred in several ways.

Breakthroughs in technology have made some manual tasks simpler.

Combines replaced shucking poles. Weed killers replaced pulling weeds. Tractors replaced mules.

But the technological advances, David said, come with a cost.

For example, while weed killers have made maintaining fields easier for the past decade, now farmers are finding stronger weeds that are resistant to weed killers.

“So, now, you have to go back over it, two, three times,” David said. “You have to do more cultivating. You do more labor, which is more cost.”

Additionally, new machinery costs more money, and farmers are finding they have to farm more land to make a profit.

“People back then farmed a lot of small acreage,” David explained. “Now, you have to take on more land to make a living.”

It’s not just keeping up with the new technologies that is hurting today’s farmers. In a lot of instances, it’s the farmer’s families themselves.

“That’s probably the single most thing in the country that affects farming is the loss of farmland,” David said. The problem begins when a farmer retires. Retired farmers tend to rent their land out to other farmers to keep the agriculture industry alive, but when those retirees die, their beneficiaries sell the land to real estate developers or businesses and take the wind out of the sails of many farmers.

“Sooner or later, at some point in time, that’s going to have to change,” David said.

According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there were twice as many farms in the Virginia in 1960 as there are today. Additionally, about eight percent of the farms in the state account for 85 percent of the total farm sales.

To make matters worse, David said, farmers are losing their voice in the nation’s capital. Due to diminishing farmland, the country is relying more and more on foreign imports, which develops more issues and questions concerning world trade stipulations.

“It’s just a complicated issue,” David said. “How can you trade if the playing field is not even? It looks like we’re getting thrown to the wayside. But if you look at agriculture in this country, there are a lot of jobs tied to farming; this country isn’t going to want those lost. So, like I said, it’s complicated.”

If it seems like farming is an uphill battle, consider it is still just half the story.

Factor in variables that were just as true with the first Bosselman generation as they are today: uncontrollable weather conditions, pest and rodent problems and economic downturns.

Given all the obstacles, complication “and struggle” that come with farming, why continue the line of work?

“I like it,” 20-year-old Brian answered. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Growing up on a farm, Brian learned to hunt and fish.

He spent his days outdoors in the fresh air, with a lot more freedom than those stuck in Monday through Friday office jobs.

“That’s about all I wanted to do too,” David said. “Harvest is an exciting time growing up, and spring time is an exciting time. You’re not going to make the money other people do, I guess, but why would you want to do anything else?”

David said when Brian told him he wanted to follow in the family business, he was excited for the future of Bosselman Farms.

“I’m proud of my son for what he wants to do,” David said. “But I told him, if you’re going into farming and making a go of it, we’re going to have to make some changes.”

Brian was ready.

“I think today it’s just as much business farming as it is physical farming,” Brian said. “When his grandfather was around, everyone was a farmer. But now, it’s more complicated. Now, the physical part of the work is not as complicated, it’s the business side. You’ve got to keep up with what’s going on”

In the Bosselmans’ office, there are two giant computer screens that can access weather forecasts, show the demand for any crop or product in the country and show competitive price margins. Not too bad for a business that was built by a grandfather who kept receipts in a cigar box.

“You really don’t realize it living at the time,” David said. “But you look back at what they had then, and it’s incredible. The equipment my granddaddy used when he was here is gone now. Granddaddy wouldn’t have believed it.”

Right now, soybeans are the big crop for the Bosselmans. But David said he has learned the key is to keep diversifying.

“You’ve got to stayed diversified,” Bosselman said. “I’ll plant a little of this, a little of that.”

Bosselman Farms has about 1,500 acres, and routinely farms everything from cotton and peanuts to soybeans and corn.

“I figure something’s got to make some money if I play it right,” David said with a grin. ←